The Basics - What Does a Close Reading Entail?

So, what does a close reading entail?

Here's my hypothesis. There are essentially three elements at work in a poem:
  • the content, also known as the meaning
  • the substance, also known as the function - the kinds of words, the word choice, the word play, the syntax, the function of punctuation
  • the form, how the poem is presented - the music of the poem, the rhythm, rhyme, meter, white space used, caps, not caps, line length, stanza, etc.
The formulas for the connecting of these elements to create a poem are, of course, infinite. That is why there are so many poets and so many aspiring poets. When doing a close reading of a poem, you are looking at the most minute details of these three elements. You are looking at how they function in the poem and how they complement the other elements of the poem.

One element is effected by the other - they are interdependent. For instance, word choice - a part of the substance of a poem - effects meaning and also rhythm. If, instead of saying "he is quiet", you say "he is taciturn" - in that sentence the meaning is changed because of the substance-the synonym chosen is a far more indicative adjective, and the rhythm and music of the sentence is changed because of the substance of the sentence. Closely reading for the purpose of developing an aesthetic leads me to not just identify WHAT is chosen but think about WHY it is chosen and WHAT EFFECT it has.

I culled my hypothesis from four texts that deal with the rudiments of reading poetry: The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer (not to be confused with children's book author Susan Wise Brown!), The Art of Reading Poetry by Harold Bloom (who many people in my world are not at all fond of, including several poetry friends and my current poetry teacher but as far as laying out the basics, this book does a good job) and The Flexible Lyric by Ellen Bryant Voigt, who's poetry I may not be too fond of (I don't think, at least - and why? Well, that's why I'm doing what I'm doing for a thesis) but whose ability to look at all the facets of a poem and in such detail is rather admirable, and the trusty, mammoth, go-to if not a bit insufferably snobby text The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.

More on the details of each in upcoming posts.